Case text (Anonymised)
On initial assessment of a submitted review paper with a single author, the editor checked some of the references to the author’s own work that were cited in the paper. The author mentioned in the covering letter that he had written extensively on some of the specific themes of the paper, as the references made clear, but he claimed that the paper was an original synthesis of the material.
Examination of four or five easily accessible references revealed an unacceptably high proportion of direct replication: many phrases and sentences and some complete paragraphs. The paper was rejected with an explanation that this practice of self-plagiarism is unacceptable, and that the journal would be contacting the head of research ethics at the author’s institution.
The author appealed against the decision, saying that he had been open about previous publications and questioning why he is not allowed to repeat arguments and ideas, even when they were first published in little known publications with limited circulation in other fields. The journal’s decision was upheld.
The journal then contacted the institution’s director of research integrity. His response quoted a section from the national code for the responsible conduct of research: “It is not acceptable to repeat the reporting of identical research findings in several different publications, except in particular and clearly explained circumstances, such as review articles, anthologies, collections, or translations into another language.” The institution’s decision was that the author had clearly explained that the paper was a critique and that he has published before on some of the themes, drawing attention to relevant references. The conclusion was “I am of the strong opinion that the author has not committed a breach of the code for the responsible conduct of research.” The issue of direct replication was not addressed in this response. Is there anything else the journal should do?
Some members of the Forum expressed sympathy for the author. However, the article was submitted as original work (not solicited by the journal) and the author failed to mention the other papers in his covering letter. Some Forum members commented that it may be legitimate to present the same material for different audiences and both articles may therefore have a place. All agreed however that this was a question of transparency. Authors should declare if they have published previous papers, as well as citing them in the text. There may be a question of breach of copyright and the editor might want to remind the author of copyright law. Otherwise, the Forum agreed that the editor has done all he can but he should ensure that his instructions to authors are very clear regarding this matter.
We wrote to the head of research governance at the author’s institution saying that the case was taken to the COPE Forum and the Forum disagreed with the author’s opinion that self plagiarism is acceptable in the context of a review paper. We wrote that we believe it is not sufficient that “an author who submits … work similar to work already published, must disclose this at the time of submission”. The important issue is not disclosure, but that publication of such work would be redundant. The previously published material remains in the public domain and is generally subject to copyright. Discussion of the work is, of course, acceptable, but not replication of whole sentences or paragraphs. No further action is contemplated, but we strongly suggested that they reconsider their policy in relation to this issue. We have not received a reply but we hope they may at least be reconsidering their policy.